Squatting somewhere in this big old Internet of ours is something that John Warner—of The Funny Man fame—once wrote or said or was quoted as saying about writing. I’m obviously paraphrasing here, but it was a philosophical thing about how he writes or how people should write. Basically, write about what you like and know, don’t be afraid of your writing overflowing with those things, as that’s what you know best, what will keep you interested or invested, etc. I’m sure I’m leaving some of the depth out of it—Googling write what you like John Warner is turning up like less than nothing—but I think I’ve captured the gist.
And I think that gist’s especially relevant to Jay Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve, a sprawling, funny, enthralling, maddening, sloppy, universally readable mess of a debut novel that should and likely will be talked about a lot for the rest of 2012. Kang seems to follow Warner’s advice as far as content goes. The Dead Do Not Improve is stuffed with (what I have confirmed to be via his own biography and sportswriting and what I just assume to be) Kang’s general interests, which include hip-hop, film, advanced baseball statistics, Korean identity, hardcore pornography, and though I’m probably missing a few I’ll just wrap it up with the Internet as a broad thing. More than the plot or prose, Kang’s interests are what drive The Dead Do Not Improve, so whether or not you like the novel—and I do, albeit with some reservations—seems totally contingent on your interest in or knowledge of these things.
Our protagonist and sometime narrator Phillip Kim is an MFA-holding, unpublished, and generally unsavory young man in a half-gentrified area of San Francisco. When his neighbor Dolores—who Kim calls “baby molester” for reasons far less ghastly than you’d imagine but far too unimportant to really get into here—is killed by stray bullets, his world is shaken, and he soon finds himself caught in a struggle between Internet puritans and hardcore pornographers. Continue reading